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Praise pours in for firefighters pictured saving American flag in Oroville wildfire

Firefighters save a U.S. flag as flames from the Wall fire close in on a luxury home in Oroville, Calif., on July 8, 2017.
(Josh Edelson / AFP/Getty Images)

The image has been shared thousands of times and brought freelance photographer Josh Edelson messages of thanks from both home and abroad.

As dusk turned to night Saturday, three firefighters battling flames and protecting homes in the path of a growing wildfire in Oroville, Calif., took an extra few moments to take down and safeguard an American flag that was hanging from a house balcony before moving on to the next home.

The flag wasn’t huge, maybe 4 by 6 feet, but was flammable and vulnerable to burning from ambient heat which could then ignite the house, said Russell Fowler, a battalion chief with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The crew was part of a five-engine team protecting about 50 homes in the path of the 5,800-acre Wall fire and they were tasked with clearing out brush and items from the outside that could burn and ignite homes in the neighborhood, Fowler said.

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It was amid this chaos, with propane tanks exploding, power lines falling down and tall flames inching forward that the three firefighters made a quick decision to grab the flag.

“We’re not going to let the symbol of Americans’ freedom perish in the fire,” Fowler said.

Edelson, who photographed the firefighters, said he came upon the scene when he moved to the rear of the house where he’d spotted flames from the front. He saw the firefighters spray down brush and weeds to create a barrier between the fire and the neighborhood.

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Firefighters only have a few minutes to spend at each house before moving onto the next one, Fowler said. The men were finishing up at the home that had the flag when Edelson showed up.

“They did a pretty good containment line around the house. There was this sort of moment of brief calm,” Edelson said. “They turned around and saw the flag there and it was pretty high up. They discussed it for a split second, made a snap decision to take it down.”

The men are illuminated in orange and red haze in the shot. Two of the firefighters are supporting a third, who is holding onto a balcony railing with his right hand and taking down the American flag with his left, the stars and stripes flapping in the wind.

The men then rolled the flag up and stored it elsewhere on the property, Fowler said.

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“They didn’t know there was a photographer in the area that happened to snap that photo and post it,” Fowler said.

It wasn’t until Edelson posted it on Facebook and it was shared thousands of times among Oroville locals that word got back to the firefighters.

Fowler said he called them into his office recently to discuss the flag incident with them.

“They’re very humble. They’re like, ‘Oh my God, we’re in trouble,’” Fowler recalled. “I said: ‘Guys, you’re not in any trouble. You did a good thing.’”

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While some on social media have questioned the firefighters’ priorities, the overwhelming response has been positive, Fowler said.

Edelson said it’s the most popular photograph he’s ever taken in his 10 years of shooting.

“I think it’s because our country is really, kind of, sort of in a rut. We’ve been going through a lot with everything happening politically, we’ve really sorely needed a positive hero moment to boost our morale,” Edelson said. “I think this is sort of representing that.”

joseph.serna@latimes.com

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For breaking California news, follow @JosephSerna on Twitter.

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